DJ TOKiMONSTA's incredible recovery

Regaining sense

She’s playing Laneway Festival in January – so it’s hard to believe that just last year, DJ TOKiMONSTA couldn’t hear music.

In the past two years Los Angeles DJ Jennifer Lee (aka TOKiMONSTA) has been to hell and back. In 2016, a rare disease called Moyamoya took away her ability to recognise sounds and make the music she loves. Now, after two brain surgeries, her musical abilities are back: the psychedelic hip-hop producer just released her new album, Lune Rouge, and will be performing at January’s Laneway Festival. Paperboy nabbed 15 minutes with her.

INDIA HENDRIKSE: Can you describe the sounds on your new album and how they differ to some of your previous music?

JENNIFER LEE: I would say that this album isn’t a complete 180 from the work that I’ve been doing up until this point. I think there’s always been a gradual progression and every album has been a step forward on the creative path. With this particular album I think it is very much like that, but in a way a bit different in that I really took the time and looked back at my old work. In the past I was the kind of artist who always wanted to keep moving forward… I was in a place that I didn’t want to revisit and I think creatively I was like, I want to find what my next sound will be and keep moving forward. But with this album, I did take a step back to look at my entire career up until this point. What I was able to do was look back and really reflect on who I was as an artist, and try to renew my faith in myself as an artist and what I was capable of.

You had to relearn how to hear music. Do you feel like you would have been able to make the songs on Lune Rouge without relearning how to hear music?

I mean I guess if I couldn’t relearn music I wouldn’t be able to make anything so there wouldn’t be any music. But if you mean in terms of what resulted from that experience if I hadn’t gone through it, I imagine it would have been different. It takes every experience for you to end up where you’re at and I’m so proud of this body of work in this album. It’s very personal and I know for a fact that I wouldn’t have made these songs if I hadn’t gone through that experience. I can’t say how different they would be but they wouldn’t be these songs. I guess that’s the easiest way to put it.

And after everything you’ve been through, it’s miraculous that you can hear music again... it almost seems fateful that you’re meant to make music. How does it feel to you?

These existential questions are always really interesting and I find myself thinking about them a lot, like, ‘do I have a purpose to serve? Is there a reason why I’m here?’ And then I try to also be very grounded and look at myself from the perspective of you know, I’m here, I’m glad I’m here, I should live this day like any other because the future doesn’t exist and that’s basically the truth.

I suppose I do believe in fate but I do believe in making your own choices. There’s always some kind of philosophical way of looking at it that I can’t really verbalise. I’m glad that I’m here and maybe there’s something out there that has a purpose for me but at the same time, whatever that purpose is, it’s not something I’m going to overthink. I’m just going to continue to live my life as it is and do the best that I can to make the most of it.

Absolutely. Over the years, you’ve collaborated with a lot of other artists. Do you feel like you have a favourite collaboration to date?

I love everyone that I collaborate with. I can’t really make good music with people that I don’t like – not to say I don’t like a lot of people, but there would be a coldness to the music if it was from someone who had sent you a song but you never had any kind of rapport with them. I would say every experience with every artist has been really special and unique and I’m glad to say that all the artists that I’ve worked with have become friends of mine. As far as this current album, yeah it’s very hard to say because they’re all special in particular ways. Working with Io Echo was very special because she’s one of my best friends and she exists in a very different sphere of music for her own stuff, so to work with her was really special. And with artists like Selah Sue who I’ve never met in person, we’ve sent very emotional and detailed emails to each other. That makes me feel as though we have this bond even though we still haven’t talked to each other, like heard each other’s voices or seen each other’s faces.

And what kind of music do you like to listen to in your own spare time?

Right now, I’m listening to the new Mount Kimbie record, which I think is really amazing. I’m fortunate in that I have these wonderful friends who are musicians but I’m also very big fans of theirs as well… the Moses Sumney album is really good [too].

Living in LA, are there particular places you like to go that inspire your music or fuel you creatively?

One place that’s always been really inspiring to me is a club named Low End Theory. It’s where I cut my teeth as a musician and as a producer. Lots of other amazing producers have come out of that club and so whenever I want to have my ear on the ground and hear what is new and upcoming – sort of experimental electronic and hip-hop music – I’ll stop by Low End Theory and see what’s going on.

Have you had time to look at the Laneway lineup yet?

Yeah I have and I’m really excited. I know a lot of the people playing so it’s gonna be a big party – I hope you all stay hydrated and alive. I’m excited to see Bad Bad Not Good… and Moses Sumney, he’s also a friend of mine who I haven’t been able to catch live. And I always like seeing people I’ve seen before, like Anderson [Paak], Bonobo, The Internet… I’ve heard great things about Billie Eilish as well.

TOKiMONSTA will play at Laneway Festival, Albert Park, central city, Mon 29 Jan 2018.

WIN! Paperboy has a double pass to Laneway to give away, click here to enter